Book clubs have a long history in my family. Growing up, I recall my parents, who were both teachers, periodically hosting their book club at our house. This involved cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and dinner. I would help my mother with the preparations and once the guests arrived, I said my hellos and retreated to my bedroom. Since my room was just off the dining room, I could hear the laughter and arguments that went very late into the night. All of the men and most of the women were teachers, as well. They enjoyed a spirited discussion.
Over the years I’ve participated in a number of book clubs, too, but none like the one I’m part of now. In 2014, my daughter Leah floated the idea of a family book club. She explained that Google had a free app, Hangouts, that would allow up to ten participants in a video conference call. Since we had family all over the country, she was living in Seattle at the time, it would be a good way to connect. I thought it was a brilliant idea. Leah sent out an email to her grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins – she cast a very wide net – to gauge interest. Since we do have family clustered in certain locations, we could have more than 10 participants if people gathered at one computer. Our family-video-book-club was born.
When we began my mother was living in Florida. She gamely tried to manage the technology – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. When she didn’t, I called her on the phone and I held it next to my computer speaker so she could hear and when she wanted to comment, held the phone to the microphone or I passed on her remarks. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough. Now she is in New Jersey and more often than not my brother Steve is able to join her. So, we have my 84-year-old mother, her two granddaughters, two of her cousins, her three children, her nephew (occasionally another nephew joins us) and her daughter-in-law’s sister (got that?). We are a multi-generational group with very different ways of looking at the world. I found it amusing that, when we read Life by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, my mother was the most accepting of his excesses (and his excesses are well documented in his book – it is amazing that he is still alive). Most of us younger folks judged him more harshly.
We gather once every 6 weeks or so. People have moved around a bit over the years, currently we gather from Albany (NY), Freehold (NJ), Maynard (MA), Maclean (VA), Palo Alto (CA), Boston (MA) and Buffalo (NY). I have participated from various locations – all I need is a wi-fi connection and my I-pad. We have read 34 books together. Leah set up a rotation and each person gets a turn to choose the book. The ‘chooser’ moderates the discussion. We chat for an hour, usually on a Saturday morning.
It has been so enriching on many levels. First, I have to say, my family is pretty damn smart! I always learn from the conversation. My understanding of the book is always deepened, even when I haven’t particularly enjoyed the book. Actually, the conversation is most useful when I haven’t enjoyed the book because hearing what others, who did like it, have to say helps broaden my perspective.
Also, I have gotten to know everybody in a different way. I think, by virtue of being structured the way it is, we can only have one speaker at a time and we take turns, means that all voices are heard. That would never happen if we were physically all in the same room! So, those of us who are quieter in social settings, it is true most of us aren’t the shy, retiring type, we get to hear their thoughts. Plus, we actually talk about the book! Something about sitting at a computer screen at an appointed hour, with only our cups of coffee to distract us, and we don’t drift too far off topic. There are no side conversations.
The technology has failed us occasionally and that can be frustrating. Leah is persistent, though, and everybody is pretty patient while we sort that all out.
When we started, now almost four years ago (unbelievable!), I think everyone was nervous about choosing the book. No one wants to choose something that everybody hates. I was the first ‘chooser’ and I selected E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel. I remembered loving that book as a young adult. He is a great American author with a long list of acclaimed novels (I have read many of them over the years). I didn’t recall how dense and demanding this particular book was. It is safe to say not everyone loved it (not even me on my second reading), but we had a great discussion. I think it may have broken the ice, in a way, since everyone was very kind. They didn’t throw me out of the club for picking something so difficult.
We have read in just about every genre – fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, historical novels, and autobiographies. We’ve read classics and current best sellers. I have read books I would never have chosen on my own.
While this book club is nothing like my parents’ more social, boisterous gathering, thank you Leah for organizing it and thank you to all who participate. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.